On December 7th, I visited and spoke with J.D. Scholten, who is running for Congress in Iowa’s fourth district. A transcript of our conversation is below.
If after reading this interview you agree with me that J.D. is the right candidate for the fourth district, please join me in donating generously to his campaign!
An Interview With JD Scholten, Candidate For Congress in IA-4
You have really really deep roots here!
I do. Fifth generation. My great-great grandfather turned the land as a farmer, came here from Norway.
For people who've never been to Iowa, never been to this part of Iowa, can you describe the district and the people who live here?
Yeah. Well, growing up here, the district is the most rural district in Iowa, and when you think of Iowa you think of agriculture and corn. Size-wise we're larger than if you combined the Netherlands and Belgium, and it's thirty-nine counties. So seven media markets. Getting your name out there is not the easiest thing to do.
I'm fortunate enough that my dad is from the Northwest corner, my mom's from the Northeast corner, I was born in the Southeast corner, and I was raised, not the Southwest corner but the Western half of the district. So I have a lot of connections throughout the district. Getting the name out there is a little bit easier for me because of those roots.
You were telling me earlier that Sioux City, where we're having this interview is, a little bit of a forgotten part of Iowa, and you want to change that.
Yeah, well growing up I was, I wouldn't call myself a jock [laughter], but I was well-balanced. My mom made sure that I took piano lessons and did a lot of cultural stuff too. I grew up in this in between; to all my jock friends I was the artistic kid, and to all my artistic kids I was the jock friend. I'm somewhere in between I guess.
Growing up playing sports here in Sioux City, we always had this edge about us. We have Omaha, which is an hour south, and Sioux Falls an hour north, but those are in different states. The big rivalry for us was always with Des Moines, three hours away.
We're the fourth-largest city in Iowa, yet we don't get much respect. A lot of people have just cast off Sioux City as this western city that nobody goes to, and there's an edge to Sioux City, a river town edge. Now that I'm running for Congress, and being more involved in politics, I see the same exact thing. Des Moines tends to forget us.
We have seven Democrats running for governor—five are from Des Moines, one's from Ames, and one's from Iowa City—and they come up, they check off Sioux City and we don't see them a lot. As a Democrat, we feel forgotten here. This is a very middle-class town—it should absolutely be a Democratic town, and on a grass-roots level that's one thing I'm hoping to focus my campaign on, because it's the largest city in the district.
This is a Republican leaning district, and you're up against a eight term incumbent who is also a clownish man who is widely disliked. I didn't hear anybody express a positive opinion of Steve King when we were out campaigning today. But given the challenge of being in a red district, what's your plan for kicking him out of office?
It's a two-pronged approach. At the very root of it all is a grassroots movement. It's going around, setting that foundation and going to talk to folks. It's imperative that you go to the uncomfortable places, and have those uncomfortable conversations, and try to find a commonality. You try to find those people who are Republicans but aren't that... like, Steve King is beyond Republican, he's so far right. So you try to find a commonality.
Iowa and this district are pretty old-school. Church is still a huge part of most people's lives here. You see what King is doing and it's not really what a lot of people go to Sunday morning, it's a different message from what they're hearing on Sunday morning. On that level, people can start relating with you, when you have a similar message on that front. You see a lot of different things and a lot of people who want change right now. They want to see change nationally, and then they look at our representative, and see how ineffective he is, and they want change here.
He might be an eight-term incumbent, but, for the second time in a row, a Sioux City Republican is going up against him in a primary. You see a lot of things like that. There's gonna be a split amongst the Republicans in this district because you hear it everywhere you go, "enough is enough". He's just too far out there, and it's not like he's too far out there and getting stuff done for the district—he's too far out there and not doing anything for the district.
You've been out on the hustings for a while now. What are you hearing are the big issues that concern people?
Health care is absolutely number one, It affects everyone's daily life. You expand it a little bit more, and people are worried about their jobs, their paycheck, and about their kids' education and how they're going to pay for college. Those are at the heart of everything.
Then, because we're a rural district, and we're declining in population, we're losing the labor force. So immigrants in this district are extremely important. And in the reddest of the red counties, a place that has eighty percent Republicans, they are heavily reliant on immigrants. So you're starting to see a change. They're Republican, but they're for DACA. And they're for immigration reform. Meanwhile the incumbent, Steve King, has adamantly said "absolutely no amnesty", and so therein lies the fight. There's potential for change here.
You told me something fascinating: there's a tight labor market here, unemployment is low, but there are no good jobs, either.
I talked to a economist out of Iowa State, which is in our district. He was saying that we overeducate our kids for an economy that doesn't exist here in Iowa.
This time last year I was living in Seattle. When I was living there, I would go and watch Iowa football games with a group up there, and there's about a hundred people who would show up and we'd talk about it. There are so many Iowans who are outside the state who would move back if there was more opportunity, but there's not. When you graduate from Iowa State—Iowa State's a really good school—you have only a few select options in-state. And then you have a plethora of options outside the state.
So you move to Minneapolis, you move out to the coasts. It's been happening for generations, but it's one of those things where it's gotten dangerously bad, to a level that we really need to start building the Iowa new economy here.
For people in my world, tech people who are out in California or Seattle or on the East coast, what are things that we can do to help your campaign and help you win?
Well, you can move here and vote for me!
An easier, obvious one is contribute to the campaign financially. The third one I would say is connect with us on social media and get our name out there. By getting our name out there, that's how we got connected [with Tech Solidarity], and that's how I'm getting connected with other people too.
This district is absolutely winnable, and the fight is here. The way my campaign is going about it is, win or lose there's going to be something substantial left here. In any campaign it's a risk, and you need a lot of things to go your way, and you need a little bit of luck. But we're seeing change happen here. By getting help from folks like you and people who are part of Tech Solidarity, it's just, it's saving us months of work to get where we want to be. So when it comes time to really grind it out, we'll be prepared and ready to do so.
Can you talk about the Winnebago?
[laughter] So Winnebago RVs are made in our district, in Forest City, Iowa. My vision from Day 1, the very first vision, was to buy a used small Winnebago and put my name and my logo on the side, and once it thaws after this winter, be nonstop.
I absolutely believe that if I get it, it'll allow me to be so remote that I'll talk to almost anybody and everybody in this district. I'll go to every single county, every town in the county, and it'll allow me to have the access to make the change that we all desire.
So your vision for moving back to Iowa was to live in a van and be broke and talk to strangers...
That resonates with me. So my next question: you're a first time candidate. What was the defining moment when you decided that " have to run for office and it has to be this year, against this opponent"?
Well, like I've mentioned, I was in Seattle this time last year, and right after Thanksgiving, right before I flew back to Seattle my Grandma told me "you need to move back to Iowa and take care of our farm."
I've never lived on the farm, though I've obviously been on it, we'd go every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, and every August for two years after baseball right before school started. And then she passed away. Then it just really hit me, that I had a good job and a good life in Seattle, but it wasn't home. And, being a fifth generation Iowan, this was home.
I was kinda lost for about a month, then the inauguration happened and in Seattle I went to the Women's March. It was there that I had that moment of clarity and I knew I was moving home to fight. I didn't know what I was going to do.
And then I was like "you know, I don't have a lot of money, but I have a lot of connections, and maybe I could run for Congress". Because, for someone who is a big fan of the late Paul Wellstone, being a midwest progressive, someone who is extremely competitive and doesn't like to sit on the sidelines, I look at Steve King and I was like "game on". That's kinda how it went. We had a woman who ran last time, and when, in March, King made his famous tweet saying "we can't restore our civilization with other people's babies", it ticked off a lot of people and she raised a lot of money right away.
Then she ended up dropping out, for many reasons; the press picked up on the death threats the most. For a month there was nobody in this race. And in that month, that's kind of when I knew, "I'll do it".
I don't know if there was one single moment but a lot of things led up to this, and one of the coincidences, one of the strange things about this all is the week it told my parents I was moving home was the week they said they were going to put the house on the market. I told them "well, I'll buy it". Next summer I'll be home to do the laundry and mow the lawn and that's about it.
So, on that great day when you are sworn into office, and they show you how to find your desk, what's the first issue that you're going to fight for?
For me it's health care. If we can solve that issue, I think, the other ones don't go away, but I think it gives us a less desperate approach to a lot of other things. I have a lot of friends who are stuck at their jobs just because of their health insurance. They don't want to start that new company. They don't want to branch off and do something risky, because of health insurance. Because they just had a child or something like that.
I feel that's hurting our innovation, that's hurting our economy. Here in my district, the farmer's wife now has to go into town and work a full-time job just to pay health insurance for the both of them. 'Cause you don't get insurance with farming. And prices are going so high, and then when you have the average age of a farmer here in the state being above 65...
Oh my god!
Yeah. It's crazy. And it's getting dangerous on our aging population here in this district. So that's the number one thing. Especially when you have an incumbent who voted against, or who wants to get rid of Medicaid.
In a lot of these small towns the largest building and the largest employer is the retirement home. Once you lose that, and once we start consolidating those, some of these small town communities that are just fighting to stay alive are going to vanish.
Another issue for me is pushing for rural broadband. It isn't my number one issue, but it's a strong thing for me, so the next generation can still have that independence of living on the farm, living in a small town, but still have a connection to the larger world.
Thank you so much for your time!
Please share this interview with others, and take a moment to contribute directly to JD's campaign, or as part of Tech Solidarity's Great Slate of progressive candidates! The money you donate now will go directly into grassroots work including staffing, field offices, outreach, and canvassing. We can help J.D. flip his district in 2018 if we give him adequate resources right now.
If you can afford it, please consider giving the maximum donation of $2,700. But any amount you can give will make an immediate, tangible difference.